Margarida Paiva

Margarida Paiva is a visual artist, originally from Portugal, living and working in Oslo.
In 2007, she completed her Master degree at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, and has earlier studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Porto and Art Academy in Trondheim. Her work has been shown widely in exhibitions and international festivals since 2000, and she has received several art grants. Her short film Every Story Is Imperfect (2012) has recently been awarded at FOKUS 2014, Nikolaj Kunsthal (DK).

Recent exhibitions include Stories and Desires From Who Sleeps at Galeria Camara Oscura in Madrid (ES), Stereo. Not Mono at Galleri F15 in Moss (NO), 3rd Space / II Baltic Biennale in St. Petersburg (RU), Fail Again Fail Better at Tromsø Kunstforening (NO) and solo exhibitions at Galleria Muratcentoventidue in Bari (IT) and Interkulturelt Museum in Oslo (NO).


The Day Every Story Will Hurt You

by Pavla Alchin
Exhibition publication, Akershus Kunstsenter, Oslo © 2014

Our contemporary media landscape seems to be flooded with stories and images of trauma, whether they are concerned with the personal (abuse, murder, suicide, illness) or the collective (wars, terrorism, natural disasters). If nothing else, their pure proliferation has to logically lead to a certain numbness and detachment on the part of those who do not experience them first hand. Which prompts us to ask - how can we possibly empathize when traumatic events themselves are by nature inaccessible even to those who are at the receiving end? As one of the foremost scholars in Trauma Theory, Cathy Caruth puts it:  

It is the fundamental dislocation implied by all traumatic experience that is both its testimony to the event and to the impossibility of its direct access.*

The traumatized repeatedly relive the ‘wounding’ event in their mind, however the original intensity makes it impossible to fully remember or forget it.*

Margarida Paiva’s trilogy of video works seem to pivot on stories of personal trauma and our inherent inability to fully understand them. Every Story Is Imperfect (2012), I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me (2013) and The Day I Wasn’t There (2014) each focus on a different manifestation of a traumatic event: the first work deals with domestic violence and abuse, the second on the metamorphosis of a victim into a perpetrator and the third centers on the story of a possible suicide. All three works are linked by the use of both documentary and film-noir elements, ambiguity and the female lead characters. I would like to take a closer look at the methods the artist uses to draw our attention to the nature of trauma and to ‘force’ us to identify with the ‘fictional’ victims, more specifically the relationship between sound (audio) and images (visual), editing methods and mise-en-scéne.   

In order to establish this ground let me first give you a brief prose précis of each work. In Every Story Is Imperfect Paiva uses pieces of real radio news-reports of disappearance and violence to build new narratives. Her enigmatic - mostly female - on-screen characters walk or run silently through urban spaces escaping from each other (?) or themselves (?). I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me is based on real life interviews with women who have murdered. These are now re-enacted by actresses. We hear explanations of why they felt the urge to kill, descriptions of some of the crimes and how they felt when committing them. The Day I Wasn’t There revolves around the story of an incident – somebody ends up under the wheels of a train. We see three female characters pass through urban landscape - at times looking confused and dis-orientated – accompanied by the voice of a female narrator. Was it an accident or an attempted suicide? 

See The Sound/Hear The Picture

Sound and cause, though quite distinct are almost always confused. But surely this confusion is inscribed also at the very heart of our experience itself, like an unsettling knot of problems.* 

The relationship between sound and image plays a crucial role in Paiva’s oeuvre as a whole. In the trilogy she skillfully plays with their continuity and synchronization and by doing so achieves a sharply unsettling and unresolved suspense, highlighting the unstable nature of described events and reality itself.  She uses very formalized images – anonymous eerily empty places, minimal at times, almost automaton acting, subdued light, color-coded costumes, to push forward the sound which often both carries and destabilizes the narrative. The soundtrack in all three works is very tightly constructed, containing both on and off-screen diegetic and non-diegetic elements with a strong presence of acusmatic sounds.* 

In all three films it is the ‘audio’, which has the most direct link to ‘real life’ events. Both Every Story Is Imperfect and The Day I Wasn’t There contain an ‘on-the-air’* soundtrack in the form of fragmented news reports and witness accounts of the events we are to understand. On hearing them we ask ourselves - what has happened? However we never seem to find the full answer in the soundtrack, where the voices often get muffled, interrupted and distorted; or on screen, where Paiva’s characters are wandering through anonymous places trying in vain to attach themselves to the voice-over floating above them. In The Day I Wasn’t There we can additionally hear the voice of a narrator describing the incident. Once again it remains acousmatic throughout, never being embodied. Once again we are left with an unresolved suspense, a void in the middle of the traumatic event.

In I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me Paiva finds a similar ‘blind spot’ by continuous use of unsynchronized voice and fragmented close-ups of the characters. Although in this case the speech seems to be clearly attached to the women on screen, who at times seem to even display corresponding emotions, the ‘out of synch’ sound does not allow the voices to be fully embodied, as if the words could never truly describe what is inside their heads.

Why is it then, one might ask, that despite the use of such methods, does Paiva’s work feel so ‘seamless’? This is mainly achieved by precise image editing and by the presence of atmospheric sound, music and ‘elements of auditory settings’.* Sounds of rain, traffic, forest and chattering crowds provide a background, punctuated by occasional phone ringing and the footsteps of characters walking along a footpath, down a staircase or running down a corridor. However, even here everything is not what it initially seems. We hear bird-song or the sounds of a playground while a woman describes her crime; an invisible unreverberated telephone rings in the middle of urban surroundings ‘waking up’ a woman lying motionless on the grass; distorted and overlaid footsteps echo through empty corridors; we repeatedly hear the sound of a train in the story of the train accident but not the train itself; we feel uneasy…

Music features in all three videos, although more sparsely in I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me, where it mostly fills the scenes which lack the human voice. In the other two works all aspects are brilliantly underlined and unified by the omnipresent music score, which is sometimes almost inaudible as it blends with the rest of the soundtrack, at other times it almost crescendos to build suspense, but never reaches a climax.

In The Circle Of Shadows

It is comparable to replaying an event over and over without feeling that you have it quite right. Because trauma is born out of strange repetition, it is never quite real.* 

The above description of trauma as a constant re-living of the ‘wounding’ moment through haunting, repetitive, ‘imperfect’ memories fits well with Paiva’s trilogy. The repetition of motifs and re-use of similar or even identical shots feature prominently in all three works. We follow the color-coded characters gazing through windows, walking again and again up and down stairs, across bridges and flyovers and down corridors – without seemingly reaching their destination, trapped within a strange ‘Mobius band’ universe. In I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me a similar effect is gained by the ‘mirroring’ of all the female killers’ testimonies, as if they all lived through the same story of metamorphosis – victims of abuse turning into abusers. We feel that their present detachment and emotional ‘deadness’ is the result of self-defense mechanisms, a reaction to haunting memories too painful to bear. 

Another of Paiva’s editing methods that points both to the unstable mental state of her characters and our inability to truly see inside them, is her employment of partial close-up. She often lets us see only a fragment of face or body. This effect is sometimes strengthened by the camera pulling in and out of focus.  Additionally, in I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me two types of ‘body part close-ups’ can be found, the combination leading to an unsettling result.  Firstly we see them being used on actresses portraying the women killers, but they can also be seen during the scenes in the forest where the camera ‘dissects’ the bodies lying in the undergrowth: Are they the victims? Is it another hint by Paiva to make us understand that the victims are not only those who were killed?

One of the most effective ‘editing moments’ in the trilogy comes at the very end of Every Story Is Imperfect. Here Paiva ‘double fades to black’ when her character first disappears in the darkness of the forest line in the upper part of the frame and then the whole frame fades to black with only the sound of the rain lingering on (the work starts with the opposite effect – we hear the rain before seeing a window covered in rain drops). Was the ‘twice-dissolved’ woman the missing person mentioned at the beginning? We are literally left in the dark – we will never know.   

Margarida Paiva’s work emits an atmosphere of strange timelessness. Her locations feel familiar and anonymous at the same time – train stations, parks and streets, which could be anywhere in Europe; she leaves us no visual or aural clues establishing the date or time when these events are taking place. Her voice-over, without reverberation, fills our heads becoming our internal voice*, however, we struggle to interpret what is happening in front of us. Perhaps Paiva is trying to make us look inside ourselves to find our own images of ‘imperfect stories’, the moments when we ‘were not there’ and to reflect them back into the shadow-like characters and empty rooms on-screen.

* C Caruth, C. (ed.) ‘Trauma: Explorations in Memory, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995, 9.

* Everlyn Nicodemus. “Modernity as Mad Dog: On Art and Trauma.” In Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture, exhibition catalogue by Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher, New Museum of Contemporary Art/MIT Press, New York, 2004, 58-78.

* Chion, M. ‘Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, 79.

* Chion describes acousmatic as pertaining to sound one hears without seeing its source. Ibid, 221. 

* Sound in a film that is supposedly transmitted by radio, television, or another electronic source. Ibid, 223.

* Distinct, intermittent, localized sounds that flesh out and give individuality to a scene’s setting. Ibid, 222.

* Hickey, A. ‘In The Wake of Trauma: Representing the Unnamable in Contemporary Art, Concordia University, Montreal, 2009, 7.

In film, when the voice is heard in sound close-up without reverb, it is likely to be at once the voice the spectator internalizes as his or her own. Ibid, Chion, 80.

Pavla Alchin is a Czech writer, artist and curator who currently lives and works in London. Her essay Requiem for the Partisan: Towards the History of the Odehnal’s Chata, was published in The Everyday Memory: Between Communism and Post-communism (Peter Lang, 2013). She has been a contributing editor of måg magazine, published by NABROAD. Her video and photography pieces have appeared at various exhibitions and festivals both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

For Every Silence There Is A Void

by Lisa Stålspets
Exhibition publication, Akershus Kunstsenter, Oslo © 2014

In the last scene of the film Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni, the protagonist walks by a tennis match played by pantomime artists. They are playing but they have neither rackets nor a tennis ball. They are playing using only their bodies. A group of other theatrical looking people are watching them and so is the protagonist. Everyone follows the invisible ball going back and forth. At one point “the ball” ends up outside the fence, and the protagonist is asked not with words but by body language to run and get it, toss it back into the tennis court. The presence of something that is absent is obvious. The scene contains a void which at the same time is an agreement, and at the centre of attention. Blow Up is built upon the ambiguity of the gaze and the space of interpretation that lets us create stories and make sense out of everyday reality. When watching Margarida Paiva’s videos I see similar spaces of interpretation, of ambiguity and doubt, present themselves. I have a feeling that I am listening in on a conversation; I know the language but can only hear fragments of words. What happened? Why? I am placed in the middle of the story. Like a detective or a concerned citizen.

Margarida Paiva’s characters talk to me. They speak about things that have happened to them, they confess. They talk about violence, trauma and survival. They are both victims and offenders. What they have in common is a loneliness that is overpowering them. What they have in common is that they are reliving their trauma over and over.
Margarida Paiva has worked on this trilogy on the theme of violence from a female perspective for the last three years. In her video Every Story Is Imperfect the violence is witnessed from a far. Voices from the radio report about acts of violence. The perspective is distanced. It somehow does not concern you. In I Will Hurt You Before You Hurt Me Paiva has chosen a different approach and used interviews made with women who have been found guilty of murder. The interviews have been fictionalized and in a series of improvisations with actors that think themselves into the position of being killers we get an unusual insight into the act of killing. Margarida Paiva’s most recent work The Day I Wasn’t There features three female characters. Three stories about violent accidents are being told. It is unclear whether the violence was really due to accidents or if it was self-inflicted. The women in the video are presented without names. They are of the same age, with the same hair colour and of roughly the same build. A narrator with a female voice recounts about an experience of trauma. Slowly a story unravels, bits and pieces of an experience that she does not have all the answers to. Simultaneously as we listen to the fragmented story we watch the three women in different urban scenarios. The voice of the narrator is not connected to any of the characters on the screen, or rather: the voice could belong to any of these women. The women share the experience of surviving a trauma. They have different stories but they could replace each other. It could be anyone of them. It could be you.

One does not witness any actual violence in Margarida Paiva’s video works. There is no blood, there are no knives, no acute panic or car chases. What is at stake here are the psychological impacts of violence. One stays inside a scenario that one is not allowed to exit. A labyrinth of low intensive pain. To get out of the labyrinth one has to put the pieces of the story together and understand what it was that happened. This labyrinth takes on geographical forms. The characters in Margarida Paiva’s videos are often on their way somewhere. Up and down staircases, watching the trains, getting on or off, walking away from something, walking into darkness. They never really go anywhere though. The movement in Margarida Paiva’s videos are that of a constant pulse, movements that signifies the life of the city. What we witness is a circular movement, a stand still, a breathing in and out. We are being rocked by the wave of commuters going in and out of the trains, back and forth in their circles and routines, steady as the waves of the ocean hit the shore and withdraw. There is something wrong in this picture though. An undercurrent of anxiety. Something unspoken that dominates the scene. Maybe by telling their stories, finding the invisible tennis ball and throwing it back into the tennis court, the characters can move on.

Lisa Stålspets (b. Stockholm 1978) is a visual artist living and working in Oslo. She holds an MFA from Trondheim Art Academy. Her works have been shown in both solo and group exhibitions in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany. She is represented in the collection of the State Art Council in Sweden, Trondheim Municipality and Levanger Art Association. Lisa Stålspets is also contributing editor of the quarterly art magazine MÅG and writes about art on a freelance basis.

The Pain-Image and An Irreparable Melancholy

by Carlota Gonçalves
Text first published for Contemporânea, Spring Edition © 2014

In the work of Margarida Paiva, video is used as a medium which responds to the artist’s intent to experiment with the image allowing to combine sounds, playing with the light, the space and the bodies. In addition to the formal aspects, there is a purpose to develop ideas and themes that have become recurrent in her work in which the focus is the woman. The woman is the central figure, and violence, isolation, trauma, pain, and an irreparable melancholy join this range of tensions that compose the universe of Margarida Paiva.
The first video of the artist was made in the forest in Norway, where she lives and works. There is nothing more inspiring for someone interested in nature and Land Art than to start in the Nordic landscape, which becomes a trigger for creation, in a meeting with the desire for the image and the aspiration to tell stories.

The videos of Margarida Paiva emphasize the mise en scène, an aspect which develops within a cinematographic style which creates links with performance. It approaches the docufiction when using real recordings of sound material in the narration as counterpoint to the fictional dimension in which the characters move. She prefers to use friends instead of actors, and makes use sometimes of her own person, in a close representation of the idea of ​​”automatically inspired and inventive models”*.

Margarida Paiva seems to empty the emotional expression of representation and leave the bodies to shape, or to model themselves to things, to the encounters and disencounters of images that are assembled in the montage – a meeting place for discovery and recomposition. The more realistic and direct sound layer adds a strange density to the overall tonality. The sound material is taken from radio or television news reports, and from various testimonies which restate the continuous accidents, violent and persistent, experienced by people portraying a world taken by its idiosyncrasies. In this world there is drama. A drama that discloses itself in the private domain sprawling to a larger dimension, and used as interference in everyday life, maybe just as background noise, turning into an echo of an undifferentiated banality of violence, this is what Margarida Paiva seems to alert us of.

Every Story Is Imperfect (2012)* is a video which responds to this demand for reality (or unreality). The news which continuously report, in this case women, disappeared, raped, or murdered, are informative data, cited by the media, where Margarida Paiva withdraws material and recreates an entire universe of interferences where women (several), and men (maybe two), inhabit the possibility of an ”unfinished” narrative*. The montage makes this incomplete appearance, through cuts between images which occur and repeat, as a discontinuous blow which is close to an idea of death. Time passes as the trains move. Someone climbs up and down the stairs (recurring element), walks through corridors, there are sad and empty eyes in close-up, and more hands and feet; bare feet that will go down the stairs like a painful crusade that insists on testing the ground. These are delicate operations which are revealed in the fragmented succession of images, as an expressive web, ambiguous and never transparent, as a communication of pain, loneliness, inhabited by a bursting melancholy. There is an ambiguous field that crosses the general composition like waiting for a mystery - at the end a woman disappears in a very green grassy field. Behind the leaves the camera and the viewer peek at this woman disappearing in nature. Salvation or death? We’re not sure.

The clarifying word of the real news reports is spreading the fictional plot which the film suggests and recreates webs of meaning. They seem to be thoughtful images, in the sense proposed by Rancière, as images that do not show through, don’t give away their meaning, encompass a tension and a duplicity attached through the nature of the recordings in cohesion: the fictional and the documentary. The images become therefore thoughtful in the sense that they provide, on the one hand, the continuation of the action (broken and split), and on the other hand, create a suspension that makes the picture inconclusive: “( … ) What is interrupted is the relationship between narration and expression”*.

The video I’ll Hurt You Before You Hurt Me (2013) is elaborated through the same principle of using authentic material in the story, alongside a fictional process, and in this case with a touch of thriller, another genre that interests the artist in this combination of forms. The voice-over was worked through from actual testimonies of women who killed. Here the woman turns from victim to killer, isolated, and emotionally thick. The rawness of the narrative facts distances itself, at times, from the appearance of the image. To speak about death, or of details of a murder, and walking through the woods where one can hear the birds is the same thing. Margarida Paiva expertly works with the mismatch between image and sound, and also some out-of-frame close-ups of faces. The close-up ”violent and obscene” (Bonitzer), hosts in itself a strength, a despair, allying itself with the out-of-frame which seems to accentuate the emotional imbalance and anguish of the characters. We follow the women from behind (another curious way to build the mystery, to go beyond the visible and open up the image to the distant, the unknown, to a kind of silence), dance in corridors, cross urban and architectural spaces and visit nature.

A House Full of Noises (2014) is the most recent video of the artist, which will be part of a sound installation, in the process of completion, with women’s voices telling stories in a conversational manner. The title comes from an earlier work Untitled Stories (2007) where a female voice, invoking memories, says: “I just moved here and the house is full of noises”. It is curious the adaptation that the artist makes of interchangeable elements and themes that are extended as lines of passage, echoes of voices, distant, traveling in memory and claiming to return. This is a house-woman, cocooned, container of memories and secrets, domestic space par excellence, which can better reflect the image of isolation, according to the artist. It is therefore in this interior, perhaps the ideal shelter and place for a dancing body and a mental dance, a bit classical, a bit primitive, where it faces a large window where shimmers of light enter. The atmosphere poeticizes itself in this scenario, and in the view of the character’s femininity, perfect silhouette with the hair covering her face, as it performs smooth and intense movements which conveys a thin and sharp pain binded to the floor and the light. The melodic and gentle music creates, towards the image, an even more harrowing and saddened connection with an invasive and penetrating power. In the end the woman disappears from the frame which becomes submersed by shadows, like a magnificent expressionist painting, in clear obscure, or a possible plastic configuration of pain.”( … ) Your film – let people feel the soul and the heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands”*- this phrase seems to resonate in the work of the artist.

Margarida Paiva’s work shows a female topography possessed by pain and visited by a desperate melancholy, or by an unnamed sadness. Strong and elusive, delicate, fragile and uncluttered images which give visibility to disintegrated bodies that look for a place outside and inside themselves. The physical spaces echo, nature and city, city and nature, and maybe the latter could be the possible place for new beginnings. Back to the forest where the images began.

* Bresson, Robert, 1995, “Notes sur le Cinématographe”, Ed Gallimard, Paris.
*  Was one of three winning works of FOKUS 2014 Video Art Festival at Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen.
* From the text “The melancholia of imperfection”, by André Lamas Leite, 2012.
*  Rancière, Jacques, 2010 , “The emancipated spectator” Trad . José Miranda Fair, Ed. Orfeu Negro, Lisbon.
* Bresson, Robert, 1995, “Notes sur le cinématographe”, Ed. Gallimard, Paris.

Carlota Gonçalves studied cinema (Realization) at the Conservatoire Libre Cinéma Français in Paris, has a Master in Communication Sciences - Film and TV at the New University of Lisbon and studied French Literature and Civilization at Paris Sorbonne University. Responsible for coordinating the Lisbon Talks IndieLisboa - International Festival for Independent Cinema and part of the selection committee for short films. Works as a teacher in Film History, Aesthetics and Writings.